Master the Imperfect Subjunctive
Call me a grammar geek but I’m always super excited when I need to teach the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish. At this moment, my students are always at a level when they can communicate almost everything, they know all the grammar terms and know what I’m talking about, and some of them feel that they have reached a plateau. And then! Bang! The Imperfect Subjunctive comes suddenly and it looks like a totally new thing.
Sometimes they feel overwhelmed but I show them that it’s like reaching Mount Everest, base by base, with an experienced local guide. Before you even realize it, you are at the top putting your flag in.
Let me show you today the same path I follow with my students. I promise that after you finish reading, you will feel proud of yourself and with a sense of great achievement. You don’t believe me? You’ll be able to check it yourself with a multiple-choice quiz. And I promise you’ll ace it!
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What is it?
You already know the present subjunctive. If you somehow missed it, please go back and study it first. Here, you need to build upon previous knowledge about the subjunctive mood and the present subjunctive mood.
The Imperfect Subjunctive is not a tense it’s a mood to express the same subjunctivity as the present subjunctive but in the past. It follows the same rules but refers to previous experience or unlikely events and possibilities.
The Imperfect Subjunctive is more common than you might think at the beginning. The moment you master it, you’ll see and hear it everywhere. And learning it is very rewarding, you cannot imagine how you could live without it for such a long time.
How to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive
Let’s look at this sentence:
Si me diera más dinero, podría comprarme más cosas.
Si me diese más dinero, podría comprarme más cosas.
Before I tell you why you have two different words for the imperfect Subjunctive of the verb dar (to give) let’s take the first step. You need to learn how to find the Imperfect Subjunctive Stem.
How to Find the Imperfect Subjunctive Stem
The Imperfect subjunctive does not use the infinitive for a stem but the third person singular of the preterite, the Spanish past simple tense, the one we use with ellos, ellas (They).
What’s the third person plural preterite form of dar? Dieron.
Now, you just need to take out the -ron ending, and voila! you have the preterite subjunctive stem: die-
So, remember the formula for finding the imperfect subjunctive stem:
3rd pers. Pl. preterite form – the ending -ron = imperfect subjunctive stem
Easy, isn’t it?
Examples of Imperfect Subjunctive Stem
You’ll be delighted to know that this formula works for all the verbs, no matter if they’re regular or irregular. Look at the following most common verbs.
Imperfect Subjunctive Stem Examples Chart
|INFINITIVE (translation)||3rd Pers. Pl. Preterite Form – Imperfect Subjunctive Stem|
|amar (to love)||amaron – ama-|
|comer (to eat)||comieron – comie-|
|dar (to give)||dieron – die-|
|estar (to be)||estuvieron – estuvie-|
|haber (to have, to be)||hubieron – hubie-|
|hablar (to speak)||hablaron – habla-|
|hacer (to do)||hicieron – hicie-|
|ir (to go)||fueron – fue-|
|poder (can)||pudieron – pudie-|
|querer (to want)||quisieron – quisie-|
|ser (to be)||fueron – fue|
|tener (to have)||tuvieron – tuvie-|
|traer (to bring)||trajeron – traje-|
|venir (to come)||vinieron – vinie-|
|vivir (to live)||vivieron – vivie-|
Imperfect Subjunctive Endings
Now that you know how to get the stem the only thing that is left is adding the ending.
There are two types of Imperfect subjunctive endings. The first type starts with -ra, and the other with -se. The -ra form is more common.
The Imperfect Subjunctive Endings Chart
|Grammar person||The Imperfect Subjunctive ending|
|Yo (I)||-ra / -se|
|Tú (you)||-ras / -ses|
|Él, ella, usted (he, she, fml. you)||-ra / -se|
|Nosotros (we)||-ramos / -semos|
|Ustedes (you)||-ran / -sen|
|Ellos, ellas (they)||-ran / -sen|
Let’s apply these endings to the verb tener (to love).
You already know that the stem is tuvie, now, let’s just add the endings.
The Imperfect Subjunctive Chart for the verb tener
|Grammar person||The Imperfect Subjunctive|
|Yo (I)||tuviera / tuviese|
|Tú (you)||tuvieras / tuvieses|
|Él, ella, usted (he, she, fml. you)||tuviera / tuviese|
|Nosotros (we)||tuviéramos / tuviésemos|
|Ustedes (you)||tuvieran / tuviesen|
|Ellos, ellas (they)||tuvieran / tuviesen|
Watch out for the accents in the nosotros (we) form just before the imperfect subjunctive ending!
When to Use It
As I mentioned before, the Imperfect subjunctive is very commonly used. You can hear it when people speak about past events, give current opinions about something that happened in the past, or about past doubts and wishes. The Imperfect Subjunctive also appears in the if clauses and can substitute the conditional form in polite requests.
1. WEIRDO Verbs in the Past
The Imperfect Subjunctive is triggered with a preterite, imperfect, conditional, or past perfect WEIRDO verbs in the independent clause. (If you need a quick refresher on this topic, check out “An Easy Guide to the WEIRDO Subjunctive”.)
Quería que me hicieras un café.
I wanted you to make me a coffee.
quería – a WEIRDO verb in the imperfect tense
hicieras – the imperfect subjunctive form of the verb hacer (to do)
This sentence would look different if it referred to a present moment.
Quiero que me hagas un café.
I want you to make me a coffee.
quiero – a WEIRDO verb in the present tense
hagas – the present subjunctive form of the verb hacer (to do)
So, the same as the present WEIRDO verbs trigger the present subjunctive forms, the past WEIRDO verbs trigger the imperfect subjunctive form in the dependent clause.
Let’s see some more examples for past occurrences with WEIRDO verbs.
Tenía miedo de que no vinieras.
I was afraid you wouldn’t come.
Me sorprendió que no hubiera dinero para todos en aquel momento.
I was surprised that there was no money for everyone at the time.
Quise que estuvieras conmigo.
I wanted you to be with me.
2. Current Opinions of Past Events
You can also use the Imperfect subjunctive to say how you feel or to express your doubts about past events.
Me encanta que me trajera flores.
I love (the fact) that he brought me flowers.
No me parece que él quisiera hacerte daño.
I don’t think he wanted to hurt you.
3. Doubts and Wishes
Ojalá and Ojalá que are used with the imperfect subjunctive to express hope for something that is unlikely or even impossible.
Ojalá fuera más joven.
I wish I was younger.
Ojalá que todos en el mundo hablasen el mismo idioma.
I wish that everyone in the world spoke the same language.
4. If Clauses
The imperfect Subjunctive helps you to talk about hypothetical situations with the si (if) clauses. They combine with the conditional form in the other clause.
Si pudiese, no dormiría nada.
If I could, I wouldn’t sleep at all.
Si él quisiera, sería el primero en todo.
If he wanted to, he would be the first in everything.
5. Relative Clauses
It also appears in relative clauses when the antecedent in the first clause is non-existent, indefinite, or negated.
Buscaba una amiga que tuviera tiempo para mí.
I was looking for a friend who would have time for me.
No conocía a nadie que tuviese los mismos miedos que yo.
I didn’t know anyone who had the same fears as me.
6. Polite Suggestions and Requests
Do you remember that we use verbs in the conditional form to indicate politeness?
Querría ir contigo.
I would like to go with you.
Could I accompany you?
You should help him.
Now, I’ll show you how you can substitute the conditional forms with the imperfect subjunctive to express polite suggestions and requests.
Quisiera ir contigo.
Multiple-choice Practice Quiz
I promised you that after finishing the article you’ll be the Imperfect subjunctive champ and I’m sure you are. Do you want to check it?
Try yourself in this multiple-choice quiz. Remember, there is only one correct answer for each question.
1. What grammatical form is used to form the imperfect subjunctive stem?
2. What is the ending for the imperfect subjunctive forms?
3. Ojalá ________ café.
4. How can you substitute the word “podrías” in the following sentence: ¿Podrías ayudarme?
5. Si ________, viajaría a Perú.
6. Quería que me ________ dos cartones de leche.
7. Me encanta que el presidente ________ a tu boda.
8. Tenía miedo de que me ________ por el camino.
9. ________ ir contigo.
10. Ella me pidió que ________ café.
How does it feel to conquer the imperfect subjunctive? Does it compare to being on the top of Mount Everest? It surely does! You mastered another important part of Spanish grammar and you can enjoy traveling to Spanish-speaking countries without fear of not being able to communicate.
If you’re not planning any travel in the near future you can surely find a Spanish speaker in your community. Do you know that according to CNN, there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the US? You shouldn’t have a problem with finding one!
But, if you prefer to start using the imperfect subjunctive in a semi-controlled environment, sign up for a free class with one of our native, Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala and practice with them.
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